HAEMI, South Korea — Christianity is a missionary religion, and heading into Pope Francis’s trip to South Korea one big-ticket question mark was whether he could fuel Catholic growth on a continent home to 60 percent of the world’s population.
Whether the church gets a “Francis bump” remains to be seen, but in a speech to Asian bishops Sunday Francis suggested that numerical gains are less important than fostering friendships.
“Christians don’t come as conquerors,” the pope said.
In a line with clear geopolitical import, the pontiff invited Asian nations that currently lack diplomatic relations with the Vatican, including China and North Korea, to move closer in the spirit of a “fraternal dialogue.”
This speech had been billed as a highlight of the trip because it was the pontiff’s chance to address leaders of the Catholic Church throughout the entire continent. As a result, it served as a mission statement for the church in Asia.
His message boiled down to this: Proclaim the faith, yes, but do it through dialogue and empathy for others, not by pushy forms of “proselytism.”
Christians “don’t come to take away anyone’s identity,” he said, but rather to “walk together” with the people they encounter.
Openness, in Francis’ vision, is a core virtue.
“Authentic dialogue demands a capacity for empathy,” he said, calling the bishops to foster a “truly contemplative spirit of openness and receptivity to the other.”
Openness, he said, expresses itself in listening.
“We are challenged to listen not only to the words which others speak, but to the unspoken communication of their experiences, their hopes and aspirations, their struggles and their deepest concerns,” he said.
The performance was vintage Francis in that he departed from his prepared text at multiple points, and those often were the moments where his personal priorities seemed most clear.
The printed version of the speech, which was distributed to the bishops as they arrived, came off as a talk any pope could have delivered, featuring familiar warnings about relativism and the dangers of watering down Christian identity. Francis pronounced those lines, signaling that he accepts them too.
By the time Francis finished expanding the text on the fly, however, the overall tone was different.
“You can’t dialogue if you’re closed to the other,” he said at one point. “It takes closeness, a closeness of heart to heart.”
The pontiff seemed to realize he was laying out a sense of mission in contrast with the aggressive approach associated with some other forms of Christianity.
“Somebody could say, ‘If we do this, we won’t convert anybody,’ ” the pope said. He told the bishops their task nevertheless was to “keep walking” with people.
“Proselytism” is a term often used in papal rhetoric to refer to efforts to pressure people into conversion. Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Francis insisted that “the church does not grow through proselytism, but by attraction.”
The idea of “walking with” Asian societies was the context in which the pontiff brought up diplomatic relations.
“I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent, with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship, may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all,” he said.
China, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Bhutan, and Brunei all lack relations with the Vatican, although negotiations with Vietnam are said by Vatican officials to be in an advanced stage.
Francis already took a step closer to China on this trip by becoming the first pope to fly over Chinese airspace, and Monday he’ll lead a Mass expressing hope for reconciliation on the divided Korean peninsula.
Another key to the church’s mission in Asia highlighted by Francis was social engagement, especially outreach to the poor.
Francis called the bishops to reflect on whether they foster “service to the poor and those languishing on the margins of our prosperous societies.”
Rejecting a faith built on “easy answers, ready formulas, rules, and regulations,” the pope said true Christian identity is expressed in quiet efforts “to love one another” and “to serve one another.”
The meeting with Asian bishops took place at a Catholic shrine located in Haemi, about 60 miles outside Seoul. The bishops gathered in a small chapel, where the pontiff abandoned the throne set up for him in front in favor of speaking to the bishops from a small lectern set off to the chapel’s side.
At one stage the lectern fell , leading the pontiff to joke “My speech has collapsed!”
Later Sunday the pope is scheduled to celebrate a Mass concluding a gathering of Asian youth. On Monday he’ll meet leaders of other religions in South Korean and celebrate the Mass for reconciliation, before returning to Rome.